Cricket’s return to the Olympics: How did it happen and what to expect?

Cricket is part of a five-sport package, which includes baseball/softball, squash, American flag football and lacrosse, and was approved after a vote conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC

Published : Oct 16, 2023 22:35 IST , MUMBAI - 8 MINS READ

Around 128 years after England and France played each other in a five-day match as part of the 1900 Paris Games, cricket is back at the Olympics. The game, part of a five-sport package that includes baseball/softball, squash, flag football, and lacrosse, was approved to be included as part of the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics after a vote was conducted by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in its Mumbai session on Monday.

These were included as optional sports that the IOC has been permitting host cities to include as part of its competition program, alongside 30 ‘core’ sports.

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The inclusion of cricket in the Olympic program was close to a formality following the recommendation of the Los Angeles 2028 organising committee to include the five sports a week ago.

On Monday, the matter was put to a vote and passed almost unanimously, with just two IOC members voting against including the five sports.

What is the nature of the tournament that will be played?

According to organisers, the cricket competition at the Los Angeles Olympics will be conducted as a six-team tournament in the men’s and women’s categories, with matches being played in the T20 format. 

Cricket, which is making its return after a lengthy break, owes much to the growth of the sport and in particular, the T20 format. 

IOC president Thomas Bach said as much in response to a question on why cricket wasn’t introduced for the previous 125 years. “Cricket has evolved very much in recent years. I can’t speak about 50 years before. What I can see, is this great development of cricket, and we have been made aware of this not just in India but also beyond by our IOC member, Nita Ambani. We have seen the figures develop. We had a discussion with the Organising Committee of Los Angeles, and everything came together,” Bach said.

Los Angeles Organising Committee chairperson Casey Wasserman also explained how he had been smitten by the T20 format. “I have been to the IPL (Indian Premier League),” Wasserman said. “My first IPL match was in 2010 here (Mumbai). And so to have that expertise, that understanding; how to operate a tournament at that level; how to attract the greatest players in the world, how to make it the most exciting environment. I mean, I will never forget my first IPL match. It was electric. And we want to recreate that environment (in Los Angeles).”

How did the push for cricket come about?

While cricket’s inclusion in the Olympics was put to a vote only on Monday, the push to make the sport part of the Olympic programme had been going on for many years. “Ever since I became part of the IOC, I’ve been pushing the IOC to include cricket in their Olympic program,” said Nita Ambani, an IOC member since 2016. The ICC also had an Olympics Working Group that had been pushing to secure cricket’s participation in the quadrennial event.

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According to the Los Angeles Organising Committee, although cricket was just one of many sports they had considered including as part of their optional sports, the drive to include cricket grew stronger following the success of the Major League Cricket, which was launched to strong showing earlier this year. “From the beginning of getting the Olympics, cricket was on the list of sports we were excited to think about. As we went through the processes, it became quite obvious we’d be making a mistake if we didn’t include it,” Wasserman said.

“As we got down from 14 (number of sports to include) to 9, we went much deeper into the sports with all stakeholders. We were talking to the IOC, but we were also speaking with the ICC, the IPL, [and] with Major League Cricket, to understand.”

“For us, it’s not just about the sport but how we engage with all the organisations that are governing the sport of cricket every day. We are going to do it in the summer of 2028.” 

What does the IOC get out of this?

When he was introducing the sport of cricket ahead of the IOC vote, Karl Stoss, chair of the Olympic program commission, which had to approve the addition of sports to the LA program, made a point to explain just how massive the sport was.

“Cricket has 2.5 billion fans and some of the most popular athletes. It represents an invaluable opportunity to engage with new countries, including India,” Stoss said. 

There is hard money involved, too. In a report in The Guardian last week, it was estimated that the Olympic rights revenues were expected to grow 10-fold from 157 crores for the Paris Games to 1570 crores should cricket be included in the Los Angeles Games.

The IOC, for its part, insists that such riches aren’t the primary aim. “This (increase in revenue from cricket’s inclusion) is not the first consideration. This can be a consequence (of the decision to include cricket), of course. The most important argument is that we have seen the growing international character of cricket. The Olympics want to incorporate the most popular sports worldwide. This sport has a growing importance in the USA. Hence, this proposal was very much welcome. This has to be implemented, and we can see the consequences it has in the future,” he says.

What does this mean for other sports?

The inclusion of cricket will have a direct impact on the number of players who will be able to take part in other events at the Olympics. 

The Olympic charter itself lists a maximum of 10,500 athletes for the Olympics. Paris is expected to adhere to the maximum athlete quota of 10,500, down from the 11092 athletes in the Tokyo 2020 Games. 

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However, the four optional sports at the Paris Games (breaking, skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing) were all individual sports. The inclusion of four team events (and one individual event in squash) at Los Angeles means that should the overall athlete quota remain capped at 10,500, the cuts will have to come from somewhere else. 

“Right now, we are at about 742 athlete quotas above what we have in Paris. We will have to start talking to international federations tomorrow to find a good balance between the new sports and the traditional ones,” Stoss said.

How will the tournament be organised?

The only thing confirmed so far is cricket’s inclusion in the Olympics. The nature of the tournament, the qualification procedure and the nature of the participants are yet to be decided. 

One of the concerns raised by the IOC about the inclusion of cricket was the relatively small number of national federations in the sport.

Only flag football (74 national federations affiliated to the international body compared to 108 affiliated with the ICC) has fewer associated members among Olympic sports.

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Furthermore, one of the purposes of including cricket at the Olympics is to bring high-profile players to the competition. However, if other sports like tennis, football and golf are an example, the highest profile players don’t always take part in the Olympics - especially in cases where the quadrennial event isn’t the most important tournament in the sport. 

The IOC has made it clear they are including cricket (and indeed baseball) under the assumption that the biggest names will be taking part. 

“The expectation is that the ICC will provide the best players for the Olympics. This will be monitored carefully,” Stoss said. However, neither the IOC nor the ICC mentioned what would happen should this not be the case.

“That is a hypothetical. Right now, we have no reason to think that the top cricketers would not want to be part of the Olympics,” Bach said.

The nature of qualification is also uncertain, although both the ICC and IOC have said the modalities would be worked out. “We have another five years to figure out how exactly these things will work. For today, we just want to celebrate,” ICC chairman Greg Barclay said.

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